Publication Date

May 8, 2024

Perspectives Section



  • World


Cultural, Environmental, Medicine, Science, & Technology

Internet culture gets a lot of flak for facilitating anger, mob mentality, and a deeply ahistorical—even amnesiac—approach to events. A friend of mine calls X (formerly Twitter) “the outrage machine,” expressing its tendency toward vitriol. So I was surprised at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic to catch a wave of cultural criticism on Twitter that pinged something I’d been wrestling with in my historical writing. This criticism operated via meme, and it had a gleefully ironic tagline: “The Earth is healing. We are the virus.

Green vegetation hangs off every level of a skyscraper, set against a clear blue sky.

Memes created during the height of the pandemic are only the latest part of a long conversation about the relationship between humans and the natural environment. Ricardo Gomez Angel/Unsplash. Image cropped.

Trapped in my apartment in 2020, working on a history of “Gaia theory,” I became fascinated by the disconnect between word and tone in the “we are the virus” memes. This disconnect points to a question, one that speaks to a larger history of environmental thinking: Are human health and planetary health necessarily in conflict?

First formulated in the late 1960s by a chemist and inventor named James Lovelock, Gaia theory posits that the Earth is habitable because it has life on it, not the other way around. Gaia theory sees the living Earth as a cybernetic system of feedback loops. These include the carbon, nitrogen, and oxygen cycles, as well as regulatory feedbacks on temperature and ocean salinity. Together they make up an emergent entity or system that Lovelock called Gaia.

One of the most important arguments for Gaia theory was the presence of oxygen in Earth’s atmosphere. Lovelock and his co-author Lynn Margulis, a microbiologist and evolutionary theorist, argued that Earth’s oxygenated atmosphere was thanks not to plants but to ancient bacteria. While so much of life today depends on this oxygen for survival, at the time—2.4 billion years ago—the growing presence of atmospheric oxygen was a toxic catastrophe for many organisms. Some of them moved underground to get away. Others died out. This release of oxygen into the terrestrial atmosphere is sometimes called the great oxygenation event. Lovelock and Margulis also referred to it as the first planetary-scale pollution event.

If we stopped emitting, Eden-like conditions would snap back.

For Lovelock and Margulis, it was clear that one organism’s waste was another’s environment. Sometimes this was beneficial, like the neat coupling of plants and animals breathing in and out carbon dioxide and oxygen. Other times the waste product was toxic, like early oxygen was to many of the other single-celled organisms. But from a Gaian perspective, pollution was relative.

When we read about pollution now, it’s something only humans do. That was where the “Earth is healing” memes started: with reporting that without all the turbulence and pollution from boats, the Venice canals were now full of dolphins, and that the Himalaya, usually hidden in clouds of smog, could suddenly be seen from New Delhi. The dolphin story seemed like a hope that maybe things weren’t that bad; that if we just stopped emitting so much, Eden-like conditions would snap back, like letting go of a stretched rubber band. The dolphin story was false. But it helped launch the memes.

Some of the memes were fairly tame. An early one that caught my eye, posted by Twitter user @goodbeanalt on April 15, used the old Windows XP “Bliss” background: a grassy hill under a perfect sky, colors seemingly supersaturated. The caption read: “with everyone off the road, air pollution is finally clearing up. I took this picture in my backyard just this morning. the earth is healing, we are the virus. ❤️” Others became increasingly absurd. On March 26, @taladorei posted an image of Lime scooters in dark water, writing “with everyone on lockdown, the lime scooters are finally returning to the river. nature is healing, we are the virus.” And some went farther still, like the image of dinosaurs in Times Square from @stpeteyontweety on April 5 (“Wow. This is New York today where the city’s streets are empty and nature has returned for the first time since 65,000,000 BC. The earth is healing, we are the virus.”) or @meesterleesir’s rainbow Lisa Frank image of frolicking dolphins from April 12 (“This photo of the Hudson River was taken yesterday. The earth is healing We are the virus.”).

These memes felt uncanny in their blend of jokey dismissal and environmentalist fear of a conflict between humans and nature. The shockingly provocative “we are the virus” seemed to trivialize the terrifying reality of a deadly pandemic, turning COVID-19 into divine judgment for humanity’s ecological wrongdoing. But juxtaposed with truly outlandish “proof” of such healing, from dinosaurs to pink dolphins, these memes showed the absurdity of their own tagline.

Many environmentalists in the 1960s and 1970s worried humans would eat too much, use up too much space, pollute too much. A famous public service announcement from a 1970 “Keep America Beautiful” campaign, known as the “Crying Indian” PSA, combined aesthetic and moral judgment, showing an American Indian (played by an Italian American actor) devasted by the pollution destroying his homeland. Paul Ehrlich’s The Population Bomb (1968) and the Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth report (1972) are the most famous examples of how early American environmentalism connected environmental damage with human action. Activists predicted that human resource consumption from exponential population growth would soon collide with the hard limits of the planet’s capacities, prompting mass concern across the movement. Influenced by Ehrlich’s book, countercultural icon Stewart Brand organized a “Hunger Show” in October 1969, a performance art event in which activists starved themselves for a week to raise awareness of impending global starvation. Historian Thomas Robertson has written of this period from the late 1960s to the early 1970s as the “Malthusian moment” for its renewed interest in the 18th-century English economist Thomas Malthus, who wrote of widespread poverty and starvation as the human population outran their food supply. Malthus’s reanimated concerns prompted agricultural research into more productive and disease-resistant crops, while organizations like Zero Population Growth pushed for human population control.

Resource depletion and pollution remain major concerns, although many scholars and activists now have emphasized the intersections of such fears with racism and colonialism, and others have argued that it is not total human population but the Western, high-consumption lifestyle that causes disproportionate environmental harm. Lovelock, too, sometimes worried about too many humans making life harder for other species. In his 1991 book Healing Gaia, he had a chapter called “The People Plague,” where he worried that big agriculture would replace necessary forests.

Gaia could continue without any particular species.

Lovelock had in fact raised concerns about human population growth as far back as 1966, when he wrote a speculative report on the year 2000 for Shell Research Limited, who had hired him as a consultant. Lovelock’s report, however, was less convinced of dire consequences. Focused on the likelihood of pollution increase as well as population growth, Lovelock noted that energy technologies and other cultural factors would likely change along with the increasing “curbs” on human growth and resource use. “I am sufficiently optimistic to believe that, just as we have avoided anthropocidal war, so we shall avoid these other disasters,” he wrote in the internal report for Shell. “The cost, however, will be high.” He predicted dense cities and a return to more, smaller agricultural communities, combined with technologies for more efficient energy use. Despite imagining planetary pressures that would force humans to change their ways or go extinct, Lovelock did not make the assumption of many environmentalists that humanity was morally wrong for polluting or expanding their populations. This was no more unnatural or immoral than the cyanobacteria 2.4 billion years ago, belching oxygen.

Lovelock didn’t intend for any of his arguments about the naturalness of pollution or the possibility that species could harm one another to be an excuse for causing harm. His consulting work for Shell and other chemical companies, and his early arguments that chlorofluorocarbons were unlikely to harm the planet, has prompted criticism and distrust. Is Gaia just an excuse for pollution, then, since Gaia will shift to accommodate the new scenario? While Lovelock’s early writings lend some credence to this concern, by the 2000s, he had changed his mind. Lovelock’s point was that Gaia’s health mattered more than that of any individual species, because no species could persist without the continued operation of the whole Gaian system. Gaia could continue without any particular species, as long as that species’ function in the maintenance of planetary habitability could be taken over by another. He didn’t want humans and other species to die off. He just wanted people to understand that human survival was utterly dependent on Gaia. “I see the Earth’s declining health as our most important concern,” Lovelock wrote. “Our concern for it must come first, because the welfare of the burgeoning masses of humanity demands a healthy planet.”

I have a slightly uncomfortable fondness for the pandemic memes, just like my wary fondness for Gaia theory. They’re like a wild animal someone has taken in as a pet: they’re cute, but they don’t seem entirely safe. Are planetary health and human health necessarily in conflict? Well, no, not necessarily. Can they be? Sure, but that’s actually not something specific to humans. Many species have the capacity to change the world, and maybe not for everyone else’s benefit. It was cyanobacteria 2.4 billion years ago. Maybe it’s some humans now, especially the ones laying down the incentives and policies that keep oil the preeminent energy source and keep ever-greater consumption as the stated goal of a good life. The “we are the virus” memes are a reminder that asking whether humans and nature are in conflict is asking the wrong question. We’re all on the same planet, and we can’t really get out of each other’s way—or waste.

Part of the joke of “the Earth is healing” is that it assumes there’s some ultimate healthy baseline the Earth is supposed to return to, a baseline without human impact. Gaia is a homeostatic system, trying to keep stable. But there’s no one healthy state; Gaia’s conditions have changed wildly before. The joke is on us. It’s human lives that will worsen as the planet continues to warm, and the lives of our planetmates. Gaia, though, will probably be fine. And that, Lovelock’s theory suggests, should be the more frightening warning.

Caitlin Kossmann is a PhD candidate in the history of science and medicine at Yale University and held the AHA Fellowship in Aerospace History in 2022–23.

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